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The Lake of Fire in Revelation

OK, you’ve waited a while for me finally to get to the Lake of Fire in the book of Revelation.  But just think of it as the Final Judgment: you know it’s coming soon, but you don’t know when.

Here is what I think about it (both the final judgment and the lake of fire) (clarification: this is not what *I* think of these things; this is what I think *Revelation* is saying about these things).  As previously indicated, I do not think Revelation teaches that sinners will be tormented forever.  They will be annihilated out of existence.

The horrifying “lake of fire” makes its first appearance in Revelation 19.  Christ, along with his heavenly armies, appears from heaven for the “Last Battle.”  In a flash their arch-enemies on earth are soundly defeated and punished.  The supernatural opponents of Christ – the Beast and his prophet – are thrown, living, into the “lake of fire that burns with sulfur.”   Their human allies, on the other hand, are “slain with a sword,” and all the birds become “gorged with their flesh” (19:20-21)   In other words, the dead, for now, are dead.

If the author has already informed us that the beast is actually the empire of Rome, then obviously it is difficult to imagine …

To see how the end ends, you need to read to the end of the post.  But that cannot be your end if you do not begin by joining the blog.  So begin!  Then you can end!  And remember, in the end, all membership fees go to good ends — helping those in need.

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Who Wrote the Book of Revelation?
The Afterlife in Revelation

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Comments

  1. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  October 2, 2018

    Please forgive my ignorance. Since the Beast is Rome, who is “his prophet”?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2018

      Oh boy that seems like an opening for a political joke! But seriously, the prophet is usually understood to be the imperial cult set up to worship the emperor in different parts of the Roman world. This cult is promoting the cause of the emperor, proclaiming his divinity. So it’s like a prophet.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  October 2, 2018

        Thank you. That makes sense (and I’m still smiling).

      • tompicard
        tompicard  October 2, 2018

        you don’ think the prophet of the beast is a human being?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 4, 2018

          No, except to say that it’s the humans who promote the worship of the emperor.

  2. mkahn1977  October 2, 2018

    So it sounds here like the good deeds (or bad ones) get recorded in the book of life, not what they believe

  3. stokerslodge  October 2, 2018

    Bart, apart from the lake of fire mentioned in Revelation: the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus seems (on the face of it) to suggest that there is the possibility of conscious unrelieved torment and suffering in Hades. How should we interpret those verses?

  4. jwesenbe  October 2, 2018

    This should keep all young catholic boys and girl in line. Isn’t that the real purpose, control the masses through fear of eternal punishment/death? All organizations, even religions, are about power and control.

  5. aaron0383  October 2, 2018

    Do you believe that the concept of a final judgment (as well as things like the battle between good and evil, a good god vs an evil god [Satan], angels and demons, etc) ultimately came from the influence (directly or indirectly) of Persian Zoroastrianism? From what I have read, it seems that the Persians had these concepts well before Christianity came on the scene. Do you think there’s a connection there, perhaps through second temple Judaism?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      I used to, but I don’t any longer. I’ll explain why in my book! (But yes, if there is influence, it is through earlier Judaism.)

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  October 2, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I can see why early Christians had such a hard time accepting Revelation, because from after the Jewish win at Beth Horon in 66 CE, Rome pretty much won each and every battle. It must have been pretty obvious to the Christians of the 2nd century that Jesus’s victory against Rome wasn’t coming anytime soon, if ever. That’s probably why the Kingdom message was re-cast as the spiritual growth of the Church rather than the temporal defeat of Rome.

  7. Iskander Robertson  October 2, 2018

    the authour of matthew has jesus say that whoever breaks the smallest law will be called least in heaven.
    are the least in the kingdom or are they referred to as the least by those who are not the least? so in other words the least are not in the kingdom of heaven?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      They appear to be in the kingdom. Hard to figure out how the tiered system is supposed to work though.

      • Iskander Robertson  October 4, 2018

        so is the tiered system where the uncalled do not enjoy all the goodies in heaven when they are not called?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 4, 2018

          Sorry — I lost the thread. Depends which book you’re asking about.

  8. webo112
    webo112  October 2, 2018

    Professor,
    But even after the ‘second death’, the Devil, the beast and prophet are still in the lake of fire? suffering? I can see why followers would then assume anyone thrown in this lake would suffer (for ever) the same fate.

    The line “This is the second death, the lake of fire” (20:14) is very compelling part of your theory though.

    It is interesting that when the lake of fire is FIRST mentioned (Rev 19) it is with the word “the” in front, as if (the author thinks) the readers know already about this lake- versus introducing it with the word “a” lake of fire etc…not sure is this would translate to the Greek version? or if its just a translation/language process and the word “the” is best used?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      Yes, that’s the assumption people make. As with most things, Revelation does not give a completely clear picture. But possibly since the Devil and his angels are immortal beings (as opposed to human), the apparently can’t die. On the “the” — interesting point. Yes, it’s in the Greek.

  9. epicurus
    epicurus  October 2, 2018

    God should just zap the devil out of existence and avoid all this messy in the pit not in the pit business, not to mention all the grief Satan causes humans.

  10. dynamis878  October 2, 2018

    Wow this author really did not like Rome…

  11. dankoh  October 2, 2018

    So if neither Paul nor the evangelists nor “John of Patmos” believed in eternal torment for sinners, how and when did this idea get started? Would you agree that as different branches of Christianity developed in the 2nd century (and earlier, yes), that some of these branches saw hell as a way to threaten the others?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      Ah, that’s the point of my book!! (Won’t spill all the beans here!)

      • dankoh  October 4, 2018

        (grumble) Can you hurry it up a bit? I’m hoping to have my book finished by then, and I could use this for one of the chapters (the one I’m working on now, actually). 🙂

  12. Hormiga  October 2, 2018

    > those they had earlier martyred will come back to life and rule with Christ on earth for a thousand years

    Any idea of what “rule” means? Is it a more or less Roman governmental order with Christ as Emperor, the martyrs as subordinate government officials in charge of provinces, the police, military, civil works, etc.?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      Hard to figure out. Rule whom exactly? And why are there other nations and other kings of earth after the New Jerusalem appears??

  13. Pattylt  October 2, 2018

    Whew! Glad I’m just being annhilated! One thing that NEVER appealed to me was living forever, on earth or in heaven. Really, eternal life sounds like Hell to me. What I would love is a few years having all my questions answered then lights out… I’m done! I know there is actually a name for the phobia of eternal life but can’t think of it at the moment. I should look it up! Anyone else out here that also has no desire for eternal life? Especially if I don’t have my body and am not on earth or, at least, the physical universe.

    • RVBlake  October 4, 2018

      I have stated here that the prospect of eternal life does not appeal to me. All I can figure is that eternal life must be so wonderful that my infantile mortal brain cannot grasp it. Like so much of Christian thinking, it’s just a mystery.
      I just thought of a story about the conversion of King Radboud, of the Frisians, one of the last heathen rulers of Europe. As he was ready to be dunked, he asked the missionary where his, Radboud’s, ancestors were. He was assured that they were in Hell. Radboud backed out of the process, saying he’d rather spend his eternity in Hell with his ancestors than in Heaven with Christians like the missionary about to baptize him.

    • Bewilderbeast  October 4, 2018

      I’m with you! Nothing they say tells of living with nature and I don’t want to live in any sterile place, whether gold-paved or over-heated, thank you! I need to be where things, live, interact, evolve and die. And that includes me!

    • maryn  October 4, 2018

      I agree with you. Any images/predictions of what eternal life would look like are unappealing to me.

    • dankoh  October 4, 2018

      Here’s a thought I’ve often had: Both the good and the evil live forever in heaven or hell, but in hell they are aware of the passage of time, and in heaven they are not.

      (Hey, it’s all speculation anyway!)

    • Sixtus  October 6, 2018

      Fear of eternity is apeirophobia, literally fear of the infinite or boundless. Usage seems to extend the concept to eternal life, which is not quite the same thing as being scared of infinities, such as dividing by zero.

  14. Eric  October 2, 2018

    Interesting.

    “the dead were judged by the things written in the books, according to what they had done” (20:11.)

    Kind of flies right in the face of the “faith alone” plan of salvation.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      Yeah, pretty much. Unless you think that only believers in Jesus did/do enough good things.

      • Eric  October 4, 2018

        I suppose this is why Luther was reluctant to include Rev. in his canon.

  15. fedcarroll77  October 2, 2018

    Great idea of what the first century writers thought. My question is what about this great white throne judgment ? And this book of life that the writer mentions. What is this suppose to represent? If anyone who has done reading into the Hebrew Bible, there is very little mentioned about a book of life. And where it is mentioned it’s up for different interpretation at best. Unless this concept was a development by apocalypticism in the time leading up to Jesus and throughout the first century. What are your thoughts Bart?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      The idea of book(s) of life is very old, in the Hebrew Bible. The idea of future day of judgment is found in other apocalyptic texts. So it’s a combination of these two.

  16. brenmcg  October 2, 2018

    The beast and false prophet will be thrown alive into the lake of fire – it appears only they and Satan will be tormented forever.

    Is this the anti-trinity?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      Interesting idea. The problem is that the Chrsitians are not yet using the term “trinity” at this point.

      • brenmcg  October 4, 2018

        They’re not using the term trinity put the concept might be around.

        Rev 16:13 says “Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet”

        Rev 16:15 is a satanic perversion of Jesus’s words in matthew

        The other beast or false prophet of Rev 13 has “two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon” – Christ’s dual nature.

        Seven-headed Beast is the seven spirits of God.

  17. forthfading  October 2, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    When did this apocalypse come be read literally?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      As referring to things soon to happen? Probably very early. But I haven’t looked deeply into it yet.

  18. Steveh  October 2, 2018

    What did the author of Revelation mean when he used the phrase “tormented day and night forever and ever”? It certainly sounds like he is describing a state of suffering that doesn’t ever come to an end. Or is there something about the English translation that is misleading?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      There are questions about the translation, but even taking this common rendering, it’s clear that the author can’t mean that literally beause of things he says later. So it must mean something general like “a lot without remission.” Until some later point….

  19. tompicard
    tompicard  October 2, 2018

    you’ve lost me

    here you say
    “author has already informed us that the beast is actually the empire of Rome,”
    and that
    “the Beast and his prophet – are thrown, living, into the “lake of fire that burns with sulfur.””
    and that
    ” there are no humans in this sulfurous lake. ”

    but in
    https://ehrmanblog.org/more-symbolism-in-revelation-666-the-number-of-the-beast/
    “the identity of the beast: “This calls for wisdom:. . .it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six”
    and
    ““Caesar Neron” in Hebrew letters, they add up to 666.”

    I am pretty sure Nero was a human person

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      Yes, Revelation is confusing in just this way. Sometimes the beast represents Rome and sometimes its ruler(s).

      • godspell  October 6, 2018

        The Emperor was the living embodiment of Rome, so it’s not really much of a stretch. Obviously Nero will die, like all mortal men, but while Rome endures, there will be an emperor (sometimes several).

        I see plenty of modern poetry (or popular song lyrics) that work along similar lines, and people don’t take that literally, because we know who wrote it, and very often they’ve given interviews about what they meant by it.

        Revelation took on authority because after a relatively short time it became a found object, its author forgotten, its original meaning obscured. And Nero was just a bogeyman Christians frightened their children with. He did, in fact, die a pretty miserable death. That part did come true. There is a power in poetry.

    • brenmcg  October 4, 2018

      The number of the beast is the number of a man. The man is Nero but the beast is the anti-christ (or false-prophet) which is exercising all authority of the first beast on its behalf – after the near fatal wound. Its the satanic union of god and man.

      Rome is just the prostitute which sits on the 7-headed beast (the empire) whos power ultimately comes from the dragon (satan).

  20. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  October 3, 2018

    It does make sense that the “Lake of Fire” is symbolic for total destruction. I can’t envision the author depicting the Lake of Fire being a place where lost souls are swimming around in it being tortured for all eternity. While those who do believe in a literal Hell may envision the place with flames, they don’t generally don’t have a concept of Hell being “only” a Lake of Fire.

    Do you have any evidence of when Hell went from being a place of total destruction to a place of eternal torment?

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